Cascadura: Colonial, Local, Cosmopolitan
Roi Kwabena’s spoken word poem, "Cascadura," begins "simply" enough, by representing a version of the locally famous Trinidadian legend, that bestows magical power on the cascadura fish: those who eat it are destined to return–and not just return, but to end their days in Trinidad. There is a poem of the legend, by Allister Macmillan (Source: History of the West Indies by Allister Macmillan, Nelson’s West Indian Readers, Compiled by JC Cutteridge, Book III, Lesson 9, Pg 42,43; 1984 Nelson Caribbean), as reproduced by Guanaguanare:
Those who eat the cascadura will, the native legend says,
Wheresoever they may wander, end in Trinidad their days.
And this lovely fragrant island, with its forest hills sublime,
Well might be the smiling Eden pictured in the Book divine.
Cocoa woods with scarlet glory of the stately Immortelles,
Waterfalls and fertile valleys, precipices, fairy dells,
Rills and rivers, green savannahs, fruits and flowers and odours rich,
Waving sugar cane plantations and the wondrous lake of pitch.
Oh! the Bocas at the daybreak – how can one describe that scene!
Or the little emerald islands with the sapphire sea between!
Matchless country of Iere, fairer none could ever wish.
Can you wonder at the legend of the cascadura fish?
In some ways, the late anthropologist and cultural activist Dr. Roi Kwabena uses the same basic theme: enchantment, love, return, and a catalogue of the everyday beauties in which Trinidadians revel. This piece brings into focus the shared, everyday love of all the things that make daily life in Trinidad, the unquenchable desire to return, to revel in the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and touch of Trinidad. Yet his spoken word poem becomes even more complicated. This combination of the colonial, the traveler, the visitor, the local, the migrant, all combine I think to produce a locally rooted, locally shaped cosmopolitanism, not universal but accessible to all with some depth of experience in Trinidad.
Incidentally, Guanaguanare, mutual friend of Roi and myself, has taken the time to fully transcribe Roi’s poem.
First, who is the speaker? Is there only one voice? The poem spoken by a Trinidadian, begins spoken with the feigned accent and the polite and affected elite tone of the colonial foreigner. This person has a cook, Singh. The speaker says that she would not ban neither Hosay nor Ramleela, which suggests she has this power. The original legend itself seems directed at those who would come and go from Trinidad, but could arguably extend to natives themselves who migrate. But clearly there is another speaker in this poem, even referring to himself directly, "Me, throwing mangoes…." He lists all of the simple, rich wonders of life in Trinidad, seemingly common and everyday types of things–but these are shared reference points for all Trinidadians, and probably all Trinidadians abroad could and do reproduce such lists when thinking back nostalgically about home, what they miss most, what they remember, and what they would like to do when they return. (True to his word, Roi did end his days in Trinidad: his ashes were scattered at Mayaro.) This raises another dimension of the poem, as follows.
Second, what is the tense? The poem seems to lack a tense, which seems deliberate. On the one hand, memory is implied, in returning. There is a future: when one ends one days. But there is also lived everyday experience: the list of Trinidad’s wonders, which can also be stated from memory, or because one is actually experiencing them in the present. These ambiguities in mind, I chose to portray a certain chronology in the poem: past experience, memory, return, reintegration.
The Visual Method
Animating a spoken word poem is always difficult, especially if the aim is to bring out even more ethnographic depth, simply because the visual always adds another narrative beyond the spoken (which also contains within it evocations of the visual and brings into play all of the other senses by imaginary means). The problem can be that the visual animator–myself–adds other meanings, conjures up different associations, and inserts a narrative other than what the original author chose (this brings up collaboration, next).
Given some of the considerations above, this is an explanation of the choices made. The "white woman" who appears in the video is the representation of the elite, colonial foreigner who falls in love with Trinidad and vows to end her days there. Local steel pan players and other musicians can be taken as representations of Roi. The local children at one point, smiling, pointing at the camera, are there as if to call Roi back home. Hence the view from an airplane wing, moving from memory of the past (depicted via grainy, sometimes sepia-coloured archival footage), to the present–and thus a shift occurs in space and time, depicted by a shift from black and white to colour. Once returned, full colour and contemporary scenes are shown via personal video footage taken during Carnival 1998.
This joint production was not a collaborative effort, in the sense that the animation and visualization occurred well after Roi’s death and without the benefit of his advice and guidance. That means that to the extent the piece is enjoyed and appreciated, the credit goes to Roi, and where its failings appear, then only I can take the blame.
Cascadura was the very first spoken word poem recording that Roi sent to me back in 2006. I have had many years to listen to it countless times, and early on Roi and I exchanged some correspondence about this work. I knew Roi at first as a publisher, writer, and activist, so this opened up a whole new dimension to my appreciation of the breadth of his commitment and creativity. As someone who has spent many years in Trinidad, living, studying, and doing research in the country, I am hoping that I was able to interpret Roi’s spirit as best as possible, while working with inevitable limitations in terms of the footage available to me.